Dr. Benjamin Franklin Payton was born the second of nine children to the late Rev. Leroy Ralph Payton and Mrs. Sarah (Mack) Payton in Orangeburg on Dec. 27, 1932. He entered into eternal rest on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in Estero, Florida, at age 83.
As the son of a Baptist minister, farmer and educator, Dr. Payton placed great value on education. He graduated with an honors B.A. degree (social studies) in 1955 from South Carolina State University, then went on as a Danforth Graduate Fellow to receive his bachelor of divinity from Harvard University in 1958, his M.A. in philosophy of religion from Columbia University in 1960, and his Ph.D. in social ethics from Yale University in 1963.
While pursuing his graduate studies at Columbia University, Dr. Payton met the love of his life, Thelma Louise Plane of Evanston, Ill. They were married in 1959 at Riverside Church in New York. Their relationship spanned nearly 54 years of deeply engaged and fruitful service to individuals, communities and institutions, as well as an abiding love for each other. To this union, they added two children, Mark Steven Payton and Deborah Elizabeth Payton.
Throughout his illustrious career, Dr. Payton focused on the key social issues of education, ethics, race and religion, beginning with his first post-graduate position at Howard University in Washington, D.C., as an assistant professor of sociology of religion and social ethics. Dr. Payton demonstrated a strong devotion to the church throughout his life and dedicated his professional efforts accordingly: first as director, Office of Church and Race, Protestant Council of the City of New York (1965-66), and later as executive director, Commission on Religion and Race in the Department of Social Justice of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. (1966-67).
Higher education was the prime focus of Dr. Payton’s career from the late 1960s until his retirement in 2010. In 1967, at age 33, he became president of Benedict College in Columbia. During his tenure at Benedict, he added to the infrastructure and completely reformed the educational programs. In 1972, he returned to New York to work as program officer, Higher Education and Research at The Ford Foundation, where he devoted his efforts toward increasing minority opportunities in higher education.
In 1981, Dr. Payton became the fifth president of Tuskegee University. In the tradition of the university’s legacy of strong, exemplary leadership, Dr. Payton moved Tuskegee from an institute to a university. During his 29-year tenure, he established the General Daniel “Chappie” James Center for Aerospace Science Engineering and Health Education; launched Tuskegee University’s first Ph.D. programs; restructured the academic programs into five colleges; created the Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care; constructed the Tuskegee University Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center; built a new academic, research and training facility for the School of Veterinary Medicine; constructed new apartments for student on-campus living; constructed a new facility for the College of Business and Information Science; reconstructed and renovated the entire campus; successfully completed three fundraising campaigns, raising over $240 million for the university; and oversaw a nearly sevenfold increase in the university’s endowment. After 29 years of service, on Aug. 1, 2010, Dr. Payton became president emeritus of Tuskegee University.
Dr. Payton’s beloved wife of nearly 54 years, Thelma Louise Payton, preceded him in death in June 2013. He was also preceded in death by two of his brothers, the Rev. Leroy Oscar Payton and Chief Master Sgt. James Israel Payton (USAF).
He leaves to cherish his memory a son, Mark Steven (Christiane) Payton; a daughter, Deborah Elizabeth Payton; and four grandchildren, Danielle Marie, Maya Elizabeth, William Isaac and Nicholas Warren Payton. He is also survived by three brothers, Dr. Cecil Warren (Cinderitha) Payton, William Mack Payton and Bernard Simpson (Carol) Payton; three sisters, Mary Edith Padgett, Annette Dolores Thorpe and Gail Priscilla (Dr. Dean) Floyd; and two sisters-in-law, Margaret B. Payton and Janet T. Payton. He is fondly remembered by many loving cousins, nieces and nephews, and a host of other relatives and friends.
In lieu of flowers, well-wishers are invited to make contributions to the Benjamin F. and Thelma P. Payton Scholarship Fund, Office of University Advancement, Tuskegee University, Attn: Dawn Womack, 326 Kresge Center, 1200 W. Montgomery Road, Tuskegee, AL 36088.